Plan for NZ system that will help parents protect their children online

…a carefully designed and flexible package that parents would sign up for when they purchase their phone and internet plan – a package that they pick and choose themselves, according to the level of protection they want to provide for their child.

The Internet has had a major impact on society. Many of us use it daily, it has become an integral part of our lives. There are many good things we can use the Internet for, but there are also many dangers, especially for children.

There is increasing evidence of the extent to which young people are routinely seeing horrible material on their social media feeds. The Youth and Porn study that came out late in 2018, commissioned by the Office of Film and Literature Classification, showed that of 2000 New Zealand teenagers aged between 14 and 17, three-quarters of the boys had seen online porn, and more than half the girls – including sexual violence and non-consensual sex. One in four had seen it before the age of 12. Most had not been looking for it, but they came across it anyway. Most had not talked about this with their parent or caregiver.

Such facts can make parents feel very disempowered and helpless.

It’s common for parents to have little idea what their children do and see online. There is a plan to trial a system in New Zealand to give them control over what their children can do.

Matt Blomfield is the victim of some of the worst online attacks and harassments, much of it via the Internet, based on a sustained series of attacks on the Whale Oil blog. He was also attacked and badly injured at his home by a man with a shotgun. This was witnessed by his wife and daughters.

Matt took Cameron Slater to court over this and after years of battling he won. Slater filed for bankruptcy earlier this year and his company, Social Media Consultants went into liquidation. Matt took control of the whaleoil,co,nz website, which he is now using to promote his plan to give parents better control over what their children do online.

Now if you go to whaleoil.co.nz you will see this:

In the minutes and hours following the shooting of nearly 100 Muslim worshippers at two Christchurch mosques on March 15 this year, Matt Blomfield’s 13-year-old daughter had live footage of the carnage shared to her Instagram account by four separate people. She watched the whole thing, filmed by the gunman on a GoPro attached to his helmet. She saw terror and panic; she saw real people ripped apart by real bullets. She saw the blood. She didn’t tell her parents.

Many of the other kids at her school also saw the video, as did many thousands of others around New Zealand and the world. Instagram, Facebook, YouTube… it was shared more than 1.5 million times. It just popped up on people’s – children’s – social media feeds, unasked for.

It was only some months later that his daughter told Matt what she’d seen. It’s a parent’s nightmare, he says. He felt keenly that his ability to raise his daughters the way he wanted to – that is, appropriately protected, with some control over the rate at which they are exposed to the complexities of the world – had been usurped by the giant corporations whose platforms bring horrible material straight to his kids’ devices.

It felt very wrong. Something needs to be done, he said to himself.

In fact, Matt had already begun work on “next”.  After years of putting energy into the fighting negative court battles with Slater, Matt wanted to work on projects that contribute positively. During his years of struggle he thought long and hard about the wider issues inherent in his personal battle: the immensely complex matter of balancing democratic access to the internet and freedom of expression on it, against controls to prevent it becoming a weapon of harm; the inability of our justice and enforcement systems to effectively respond to breaches of the law when they happen on social media; the sheer, global scale of the platforms that dominate the internet, and the difficulty for individual jurisdictions in controlling content.

When you are attacked and harassed online it can be very difficult to defend yourself and to stop the attacks. I know from my own experiences – the @laudafinem twitter account was used to attack many people with apparent impunity. It has only just been suspended: “Twitter suspends accounts which violate the Twitter Rules” – but that can be difficult to achieve, Twitter dismissed my complaints in 2015. Lauda Finem’s website was shut down in 2017 but they still have content online, including numerous breaches of name suppression orders. Courts are still dealing with some this, but they are very slow, with complaints made five years ago still not over.

This is bad enough for adults. There are also many risks for children.

In November 2016, he drafted a Universal Declaration of Rights Pertaining to the Internet. He managed to get some interest from the Privacy Foundation, with a little more interest expressed by organisations in the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings. He’d hoped it might get championed at government level, but so far that hasn’t happened.

He watched with considerable interest as Ardern headed overseas in the wake of the Christchurch shootings to try and win multi-lateral cooperation to better control the spread of harmful material. He noted the increasing public concern and debate about social media platforms but, along with that, the powerless handwringing that usually accompanies such conversations. Many people, and certainly many parents, not only worry about the material that children are watching, but are also deeply conflicted about both their ability and their right to do anything about it.

Matt has no such dilemma.

“As parents, we have a responsibility for our children not to watch mass shootings at age 13, or porn at age 10,” he says. “Let’s stop and take a look at what the problem is, the elephant in the room, which is what’s happening right here on our own shores. Our kids, here in New Zealand, are watching stuff that no parent would want them watching”.

“We’re sitting here worrying about youth suicide statistics, youth mental health, young kids who feel shit about their own bodies and their own lives, kids who are getting their sex and relationship education through free porn sites controlled by massive corporates. And we’re sitting here going, this needs to change. And we’re waiting for the government to do it. Waiting for Facebook to do. Waiting for Instagram to do it. Waiting for who?”

“Jacinda’s efforts are good, but only partially deal with the problem. Up until now, the corporates have decided what happens to us online, and now they’re deciding what steps they’re going to take to help us. We can’t leave it up to them. Let’s take the steps ourselves and get back some control.”

Matt believes it will take a community effort to save our children from the harmful effects of exposure to damaging and illegal material on the internet. Our own community, saving our own children.

“Who are we counting on to sort this out for us? And the answer is, it’s not one person’s fix. This is not just a corporate or government issue. It’s a collective issue. We need a combination of commercial businesses, academia and government to work together on this with a common goal of saving our kids.”

He’s right. We can’t rely on large corporates like Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to protect us and our children. we can’t rely on our Government, who haven’t done much so far.

Perhaps we need someone like Matt to promote much better action, but the more support he gets the more chance of achieving something worthwhile.

He talked to people he knows in the technology sector, and it became apparent to him that the technology already exists that could put the power back into the hands of parents. What doesn’t exist, however, is a system around the technology to ensure that it’s easy to use, flexible enough to provide for individual choice and control, and expertly tailored to acknowledge important steps of a child’s developing maturity. In other words, this concept needed a comprehensive vision and, crucially, a plan.

That is what Matt’s doing next.

He’s begun putting together an informal working group, comprising technology experts in big data, AI and software development, child development specialists, media academics, and ISP and handset providers – as well as smart business minds, branding and sales experts. He’s casting his net wide, hoping other people with expertise and ideas in this broad area will get in touch.

He envisages a carefully designed and flexible package that parents would sign up for when they purchase their phone and internet plan – a package that they pick and choose themselves, according to the level of protection they want to provide for their child. Information will be provided about child development, and the levels of understanding inherent in each stage of a child’s developing intellectual and emotional maturity.

“People are daunted by the scale of the internet,” Matt acknowledges.

Daunting, but we will only remain helpless if we don’t do more to help ourselves, and our children and grandchildren.

“We know that China simply banned Facebook – they can do that because they are an authoritarian society. Of course, we don’t want to do that anyway, but it points to the difficulty of creating safeguards in a society like ours where we’re concerned about censorship and the fair balance of opinions. So, let’s give the power back to the people and let the people decide.

“Big corporations want your data. They use it to learn a lot about you, to push advertising and sell you more. On the other hand, they do not enable you to have access to that data, and there is no AI looking out for people in this equation.  There is no balance of data, no fair exchange of value.  As an example, Google is starting to get its hands on individuals’ health data (Stuff: ‘Google wants to get its hand on your health data’, 17-11-19) without people’s consent; its objective is to grow its revenues.

“My plan is about taking that control away from the corporates, and taking the responsibility away from them in some sense because we don’t trust them with that responsibility. We’ll give parents the choice to decide what they can and can’t see.”

New Zealand is the perfect place to trial such a system, he believes.

If enough of us think that something can and should be done, we can help make it happen.

If you are interested in discussing this with Matt, send an email to:  MATT@BLOMFIELD.CO.NZ

Watch this space.